A lightweight web server with Lighttpd, PHP and SQLite3 on a Raspberry Pi

Many consumer devices (set top boxes, routers, media centers) use lightweight embedded web servers as user interface. In this walkthrough, I’ll show you how to install a complete web server in a Raspberry Pi, which is a cheap ARM-based computer that is perfect for prototyping such appliances.

In embedded systems, we aim at minimizing computational expenditure. Therefore, we’ll use Lighttpd as the web server, and SQLite as the DBMS. For server-side scripting, we’ll use PHP, a nice framework for protyping : easy to learn, and very popular.

Installing a fresh copy of Raspbian in an SD card

I’ll start from scratch, with a fresh Raspbian system. This is not strictly necessary : you can probably succeed from any working Raspbian installation.

You can start by downloading the Raspbian image, and installing it into the micro SD card. There are different instructions for Linux, for Windows, and for OS X.

For OS X, there are two sets of instructions. In my setup (MacBook Pro 13″, early 2011, Yosemite), only the second set worked, and I’ll explain it here. (If it doesn’t work for you, try the other one.)

Attention : we will be doing low-level disk transfers here. One single distraction and you may lose all your data. Your motivational PowerPoints. Those pictures of the 70th birthday of Auntie Joaquina. That spreadsheet you were almost finishing with all continuity mistakes in Bervely Hills, 90210. Gone ! Forever ! (No, seriously : backup your stuff. Really !)

(And my lawyer insists that I remind you : as always, proceed at your own risk. If you follow those instructions and your computer turns to a brick, or your cat divorces you, I’m not liable.)

First let’s unzip the disk image. Open a terminal in the folder where the image file is located, and type :

unzip 2015-05-05-raspbian-wheezy.zip

Now, let’s find out the device path to the SD card. First ensure that the SD card slot is empty, and type df -h in the shell. You should get something like :

$ df -h
Filesystem                          Size   Used  Avail Capacity   iused     ifree %iused  Mounted on
/dev/disk1                         930Gi  486Gi  444Gi    53% 127405636 116484474   52%   /
devfs                              183Ki  183Ki    0Bi   100%       636         0  100%   /dev
map -hosts                           0Bi    0Bi    0Bi   100%         0         0  100%   /net
map auto_home                        0Bi    0Bi    0Bi   100%         0         0  100%   /home
localhost:/p9Q694fzz20lCp5sv3CZyj  930Gi  930Gi    0Bi   100%         0         0  100%   /Volumes/MobileBackups

Now, insert the micro SD card in the slot (you might need an adapter), count five seconds, and type df-h again. You should get something like :

$ df -h
Filesystem                          Size   Used  Avail Capacity   iused     ifree %iused  Mounted on
/dev/disk1                         930Gi  486Gi  444Gi    53% 127405653 116484457   52%   /
devfs                              185Ki  185Ki    0Bi   100%       642         0  100%   /dev
map -hosts                           0Bi    0Bi    0Bi   100%         0         0  100%   /net
map auto_home                        0Bi    0Bi    0Bi   100%         0         0  100%   /home
localhost:/p9Q694fzz20lCp5sv3CZyj  930Gi  930Gi    0Bi   100%         0         0  100%   /Volumes/MobileBackups
/dev/disk2s1                        56Mi   20Mi   36Mi    36%       512         0  100%   /Volumes/boot

Got it ? There’s a new device /dev/disk2s1 for the SD card. You might get several new lines if the card currently has more than one partition (e.g. /dev/disk2s1, /dev/disk2s2, etc.)

We need to unmount all those partitions, but without ejecting the device (if you eject it, you’ll have to restart the whole process) :

sudo diskutil unmount /dev/disk2s1

Repeat that command for each partition in the device.

Now for the dangerous command. We will use the low-level copy command dd, using the disk image as input, and the SD card device as output. Take a deep breath and check each character thrice before hitting Enter, because overwriting the wrong device will be a nightmare.

Check out the partition names above. If you got /dev/disk2s1, you’ll write to /dev/rdisk2. If you got /dev/disk3s2, you’ll write to /dev/rdisk3, etc. Got it ? Just throw away the s<number> suffix and add an r to the beginning :

sudo dd bs=1m if=2015-05-05-raspbian-wheezy.img of=<device path to write>

This might take a while — in my system, 5 minutes or so. You may type ctrl+T to send the SIGINFO signal, and get an status update. Also, you might need to write bs=1m as bs=1M, depending on the version of dd.

This is it ! Eject the the card. Time to move to the Pi.

Configuring Raspbian

Insert the newly formatted SD card into the Pi, plug the needed devices. We will need at least : an ethernet connection to the Internet, a keyboard, and a monitor. Plug the power last.

With some luck, the Raspberry Pi Software Configuration Tool will appear during the first boot. (If it doesn’t appear, or if you are not using a fresh system, you can launch it by typing sudo raspi-config in the command shell.)

Be sure to at least activate option 1 (“Expand Filesystem”) so Raspbian will use the entire SD card. Otherwise the upgrade commands below risk running out of space. I will also use option 2 (“Change User Password”) to make access to the system secure ; option 3 (“Enable Boot to Desktop/Scratch“) to ensure that the system boots to Console Text (no need for graphical desktop in this small web server) ; option 4 (“Internationalization Options“) to configure my keyboard to US International; and option 8 (“Advanced Options“) to set the hostname, and to ensure that SSH access is enabled.

Updating and upgrading the system

Once the system reboots, log in (the default user is pi, and the defaul password, if you didn’t change it with option 2 above, is raspberry).

We’ll start by bringing the system up to speed :

sudo apt-get -y update
sudo apt-get -y dist-upgrade

Installing Lighttpd, SQLite, and PHP

Time to install the components of the web server. The instructions are adapted from smching’s Instructable.

sudo apt-get -y install lighttpd
sudo apt-get -y install sqlite3
sudo apt-get -y install php5 php5-common php5-cgi php5-sqlite 

Now for a bit of configuration. We’ll want to enable fastcgi to handle the PHP pages :

sudo lighty-enable-mod fastcgi
sudo lighty-enable-mod fastcgi-php
sudo service lighttpd force-reload # restart the Lighttpd service

Setting permissions

Finally, we need to set up the permissions of /var/www (the root of the web server), and include the default user on the group that can read/write that directory.

sudo chown -R www-data:www-data /var/www
sudo chmod -R 775 /var/www
sudo usermod -a -G www-data pi

Time for a reboot !

sudo reboot


If you have a second computer attached to your network, you can use it to access the recently installed web server. Before leaving the Pi, type ifconfig to get the IP. You should get something like…

$ ifconfig
eth0      Link encap:Ethernet  HWaddr b8:27:eb:7e:b2:3c  
          inet addr:  Bcast:  Mask:
          RX packets:218 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
          TX packets:128 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
          collisions:0 txqueuelen:1000 
          RX bytes:47677 (46.5 KiB)  TX bytes:18722 (18.2 KiB)

lo        Link encap:Local Loopback  
          inet addr:  Mask:
          UP LOOPBACK RUNNING  MTU:65536  Metric:1
          RX packets:8 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
          TX packets:8 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
          collisions:0 txqueuelen:0 
          RX bytes:1104 (1.0 KiB)  TX bytes:1104 (1.0 KiB)

…showing that the IP attributed to the Pi on ethernet is

You can type on the browser of another computer to check the web server. You should see the placeholder page for Lighttpd showing that the web server is correctly installed.

Also — if you haven’t disabled SSH — you can type ssh pi@ to access the Pi remotely. This is useful if you have a single set of monitor/keyboard/mouse.

If the Pi is your only computer, you can start the graphical desktop with the command startx, and then navigate to the newly installed web server. Typing the IP address of the machine, as before, will work, but so does using the loopback interface : or http://localhost/.

Next, let’s test if PHP is working. Paste this simple test page…


…into /var/www/test.php.

Then, type in your browser (change for the actual IP of your Pi, or use http://localhost/test.php if browsing from inside the Pi). You should see the PHP info page.

Finally, let's run a small test on PHP + SQLite. I adapted this code from Veit Osiander's post on Scandio. Paste the following...

try {
    // Create file "scandio_test.db" as database
    $db = new PDO('sqlite:scandio_test.db');
    // Throw exceptions on error
    $sql = <<<SQL
    message TEXT,
    created_at INTEGER
    $data = array(
        'Test '.rand(0, 10),
        'Data: '.uniqid(),
        'Date: '.date('d.m.Y H:i:s')
    $sql = <<<SQL
INSERT INTO posts (message, created_at)
VALUES (:message, :created_at)
    $stmt = $db->prepare($sql);
    foreach ($data as $message) {
        $stmt->bindParam(':message', $message, SQLITE3_TEXT);
        $stmt->bindParam(':created_at', time());
    $result = $db->query('SELECT * FROM posts');
    foreach($result as $row) {
        list($id, $message, $createdAt) = $row;
        $output  = "Id: $id<br/>\n";
        $output .= "Message: $message<br/>\n";
        $output .= "Created at: ".date('d.m.Y H:i:s', $createdAt)."<br/>\n";
        echo $output;
    $db->exec("DROP TABLE posts");
} catch(PDOException $e) {
    echo $e->getMessage();
    echo $e->getTraceAsString();

...into /var/www/testdb.php.

Navigate to (or http://localhost/testdb.php), and if everything goes well, you should get something like :

Id: 1
Message: Test 1
Created at: 30.09.2015 05:34:33
Id: 2
Message: Data: 560b746950a70
Created at: 30.09.2015 05:34:33
Id: 3
Message: Date: 30.09.2015 05:34:33
Created at: 30.09.2015 05:34:33
The raspberry pi is perfect to prototype a small appliance with a web server as interface.

The raspberry pi is perfect to prototype a small appliance with a web server as interface.

If you get an ugly error, like "General error: 14 unable to open database file", double check the permissions of /var/www (and everything inside it). The user www-data must have reading and writing permission on everything (see the section "Setting permissions" above).

Otherwise, you are ready to start working on your project !